When I think of a data leader, I don't imagine it as a role that falls on one person, structurally speaking. I believe data leadership starts with the CEO. This doesn’t mean the CEO has to have roots in a data or analytical field, but that leader definitely should know about data. 

I also believe that a data leader ought to be pretty much any leader, because in today’s organizations a leader should be as in tune to the power of data as possible. Why should every leader think in terms of data leadership? Here are three benefits this approach can bring.

  1. They can establish data empathy.

To build a long-lasting data culture, a lot of companies need a reboot, because data culture should be grounded in collaboration and empathy, not silos and hand-offs. When I say data empathy, I mean creating a shared understanding of how people use, interpret, and share data when it can no longer be contained to an analytics or data team. It’s hard to collaborate in any community without bringing some empathy to the process.

Here's an example. Sometimes a marketing or business team needs to make a decision quickly, and a weekly or monthly report doesn’t contain what they need. If your organization is built around data empathy, it means your colleagues have go-to people who can get you what you need, often people who live outside of a traditional IT or analytics department. Having people who can help build this culture of data empathy in your company is invaluable.

  1. They can act as a business/data translator.

Part of the role of any data leader is to work as a data translator between technology and the business, so everyone in the lines of business can begin to take on data leadership behaviors themselves. I know that when I was an analytics professional, I often served as an ambassador between business and data teams, and my role was to understand business needs and gather requirements.

In these situations I observed that there are always people on marketing or product management teams who seem a little bit more in tune with the reporting or the analytics tools. They want to make sure they have a little bit more control over what they need to get done. They have a slightly higher level of data literacy than their peers and their particular teams. But they also have business context, which is equally as important as data prowess. 

Working as a bridge between these two types of teams in a data translator role, a data leader moves the organization closer to accurately measuring the ROI of its initiatives.

  1. They can take the culture to a higher level.

I understand when I say “everyone is a data leader” that we need the balancing influence of data governance. But when leadership steps up to promote data literacy and skills, that level of influence does trickle down and influence culture.  

In general a data leader, especially a data leader who’s really plugged into their role, will take a higher-level view and be more inclusive than a data analyst. By virtue of their role, the scope is wider. It should be, because a data analyst is often looking at a single use case. They may not be taking into account every nuance that a business user is seeing. 

On the other hand, a business user is not going to always know what’s possible with the data. There are a lot of things business users are tasked to do but they may not know the full breadth of their data, what’s possible and what’s not and how they can use data to address specific business problems. That's where the data leader brings these two individuals or teams together to make the output more holistic.

Finally, the other way a data leader can drive the culture forward is to make data literacy more of a household name. That means establishing a strong online presence, which can vary depending on the person, their personality, and their goals. In my opinion your online presence should center around thought leadership and learning. When readers within or even beyond your organization feel they can learn from you, they begin to see how relatable data can be. 

Putting a face on data
Strong leadership in general is a function of putting faces to topics and areas of practice that may seem intimidating, and by doing so make them more human. The more that leaders from across functions can begin to see themselves as data leaders as well, the faster we can narrow the gap between data as some sort of corporate secret society to data as a viable practice for every employee. 



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